The Devil, You Say? : Schools: Mission Viejo High election will decide whether banished Diablo mascot returns. Issue is so contentious an outside group will monitor the vote.

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A devil mascot was banished from Mission Viejo High School amid religious opposition in 1986, but after much bitter dispute, litigation and a last-minute demonstration Tuesday, the red-faced symbol may rise again.

Students and faculty will vote on campus today in an election to choose a new mascot from five candidates in a campaign that many observers deem a clash between freedom of speech and separation of church and state.

Based on concepts submitted by students last spring, the candidates are: a Tasmanian devil cartoon character, a devil bulldog, a smiling baby devil, a fire-snorting, long-horned steer similar to the one on the school crest, and a mythological Minotaur-type creature that's half-man and half-bull.

Whatever the outcome, it doesn't appear many people will be happy about it.

Bev Stephenson, a former school employee whose daughter graduated from Mission Viejo High last year, opposes the devil logo and fears an uproar from the local Christian community if a devil mascot wins--even a cute, smiling one.

"We're talking about the separation of church and state," Stephenson said Tuesday. "We don't put the Ayatollah Khomeini out there. We don't put Jesus on the flag. We don't use the devil either. There are many other positive depictions we can use."

But the issue prompted some parents to file a lawsuit this summer claiming past efforts to suppress the devil logo violate students' civil rights.

"This needs to be the kids' choice," said Carol Ziehm, a 1973 graduate of the high school who isn't a party to the lawsuit, but participated in one of two demonstrations outside the school Tuesday by parents and students who support restoring the devil mascot.

"The (Diablo mascot) tradition was never evil, it was always real positive. It was never a devil-worshiping situation," she said.

Because of the controversy surrounding the issue, the election--organized this summer by a committee of 13 students, parents, teachers and staff--will be monitored by the League of Women Voters' Orange Coast division.

About 12 to 15 league volunteers will check student identification at the voting booths, tally the votes and announce a winner at 7 a.m. Thursday.

The issue has come a long way over seven years.

Although the school's nickname is the Diablos--meaning devils in Spanish--school administrators banned a popular grim-faced devil mascot in 1986 after mounting complaints from parents and community members with fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Later that year, the student body voted to keep the nickname, but changed the school's logo to a bulldog, an image that never became popular.

The mascot issue emerged again last fall when members of the football team started wearing an unauthorized Mission Viejo High School devil logo on caps and T-shirts. Principal Robert Metz and other school officials asked the students to remove or cover the devil image.

Some students claimed they had been threatened with suspension by administrators for wearing the logos, although school officials denied that claim.

The fuss wasn't limited to the student body.

Head football coach Mike Rush resigned in March largely over a dispute with the school administration about the mascot issue. Rush said he had been asked to sign an agreement with the school administration making him responsible for what his players wore.

On Tuesday, many students said they are pleased for the opportunity to vote on the mascot issue, but they are unhappy with the devil candidates, which they believe are too cartoonish and don't resemble fierce-looking old devil mascots.

"A lot of people want the devil, but are really disappointed with the depictions," said senior Matt Olsen.

Senior Dustin Rhodes said students "wanted a good devil, not a devil in diapers."

Since the longhorn steer is the only fierce-looking candidate, some students complain the ballot was stacked against a devil being selected.

Whatever the election outcome, students and parents predict more controversy over a matter many believe has already been blown out of proportion.

A group of seven parents and their children who filed the lawsuit have vowed to continue the legal battle against the Saddleback Valley Unified School District and the high school no matter which mascot wins.

"The only fair vote is a 'yes or no, do you want a Diablo as a mascot?' " said Sandie Gonzales, a parent involved in the lawsuit. "The kids realize how slanted that ballot is."

Students said they could see how the return of the devil mascot may be offensive to some people in the community, but don't believe religion or satanism is the issue.

"I don't go home and cut my cat," said senior Heather Westover, who along with some friends gathered more than 400 signatures from students Tuesday demanding the election be postponed until students have more information about the mascot selection process.

"We just want our Diablo back," Westover said. "This is the first time in years we have become this spirited."

Teacher Terry Sheppard, chairman of the election committee, said the purpose of the mascot election is to create school unity and spirit and teach students about the democratic process.

Evelyn Hintze, president of the League of Women Voters Orange Coast division, said she believes the election will be fair.

"We have investigated the procedures that led up to the election and we have satisfied ourselves that it meets our standards," she said.

Saddleback Valley Unified School District Supt. Peter A. Hartman doesn't expect the election to satisfy everyone.

"It's unfortunate that this will be one of those issues where you can't please all the people all the time," he said. "But we've tried to make this the most democratic decision-making process humanly possible."

Mascot Choices Mission Viejo students, teachers, staff and administrators vote today on a new mascot. The school's Diablo mascot was banned in 1986 after complaints from some parents and residents with fundamentalist Chrisitian beliefs. Here are the five candidates. Source: Mission Viejo High School

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